Miranda Devine and the Smug Left

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‘This flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst ever. Sick people continue to overtax emergency rooms as infection rates reach record levels. It is time to challenge the hairy-chested Australian ethos of soldiering on through illness. For too long drugs such as Codral have allowed infected people to hide their symptoms, get out of bed and stroll around the city like Typhoid Mary. Such antisocial behaviour is no longer tolerable, as we see evidence of flu at its worst in the faces of grieving parents.’

If you read this recent Sun-Herald commentary by Miranda Devine urging sick Sydneysiders to stay tucked up in bed (‘Don’t Soldier On, Take a Sickie and Spare the City your Germs‘), and you’re one of the Left-liberal progressives eroding the moral fabric of this country, then I know what you’re thinking: What were we thinking?

It’s probably what Phillip Adams was thinking when he wrote an opinion piece recently on the turbulent conditions facing neo-con pundits caught up in the squall of a political sea change (‘The Starboard Overbalance‘). Adams said what many on the Left have surely been fantasising about for a while: anticipating a pendulum swing in Australian politics, he pondered the fate of Devine, Bolt, Ackerman, Albrechtsen and company with barely concealed glee.

But instead of her usual moralising about inner-city elites, there was Devine on 19 August giving us handy hints on what to do if you’ve got the flu. You don’t have to be a mind-reader to know that Devine’s enemies are interpreting any column by her that doesn’t fizz with neo-con acrimony, and there have been a few lately, as a desperate attempt on her part to tiptoe her way out of the ideological corner she’s painted herself into with all the machismo of an Abstract Expressionist.

Regardless of whether she’s writing about the common cold or the politics of cultural difference, it’s not what’s motivating Devine but what’s motivating her critics which is really revealing. Devine has never been interesting for what she writes, she’s interesting for what she reveals about the people who despise her and the moral assumptions grounding their position.

At its heart, the Left-Right punditry war that drones on in mainstream newspaper journalism is a battle over who has the authority to speak about what and on behalf of whom.

Sure, Devine is the mistress of the personal attack. Her columns are replete with straw figures from pro-Muslim academics to bleeding-heart apologists for criminals. But then, popular commentators self-aligned with ‘the Left’ fire the standard broadsides at Devine and her neo-con cronies from their own columns. The name-calling is usually vague and predictable: pro-Howard, pro-American, pro-Bush, religious fundamentalist, racist, and so on.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

Devine’s way of framing issues makes her vulnerable to this sort of simplistic attack. In her world you’re either a Left-liberal intellectual elitist rendered ethically impotent by cultural relativism, or a type of ‘reasonable man’ whose political and social conservatism is the natural consequence of morality properly conceived.

Here’s Devine, in the Sydney Morning Herald in March 2005, at the time of the Macquarie Fields riots, writing in support of a zero tolerance crime policy:

The police officer explained what he saw as his job: to protect the people on one side from the people on the other. His was a simple understanding of what communities expect of this police: to uphold the law, preserve order and protect law-abiding people from law-breakers. But it’s not so clear for police any more, judging by the reaction to riots at Macquarie Fields sparked by the deaths of two youths on Friday night in a stolen car which crashed during a police chase. It’s not the business of police to be chasing stolen cars, it seems. That’s a violation of human rights.’ (‘A Fields Day for the Do-Gooders’)

Her evidence for the ‘do-gooder’ position suggested by that last comment? A vague allusion to what social workers and academics are saying, referenced by the comments of a lone, concerned citizen published in the letters page.

Now consider what she wrote in a recent SMH column (‘Parties Have Lost their Innocence‘) defending teenagers’ rights to party in peace. As representative of the common-sense, majority view, Devine quotes a North Shore mother of three as saying: ‘I feel really sorry for teenagers at the present with all the do-gooders passing laws and with local discos and youth groups closing down, there’s nowhere for them to go. You want them to go out and build their social skills. If [my son]wanted to sit home and knit every night I’d be really worried.’

And Devine believes this is a human rights issue worth defending:

there is just nowhere left for [teenagers]to go. Demonised by the media, subject to ever more stringent rules and regulations by schools, councils and police, they have good reason to feel oppressed.’ [my emphasis]

So what is it about Devine that is so infuriating to her Leftie critics? Here’s the beginning of a list: the fact that her arguments rely on playing the man and not the ball; that she uses anecdotal evidence both arbitrarily and capriciously; that she generalises; and that she frequently and shamelessly contradicts herself. Yet a neo-con pundit like Devine and an old-Leftie commentator like Adams might have more in common than these criticisms would suggest.

Adams’s fatherly advice to Devine and her other ‘conservative choristers’ is to recognise the inevitable pendulum swing before it hits them. Reject ‘triumphalism’, he warns them.

The creeping smugness of Adams’s piece is instructive. The Left would be well served by leaving the self-satisfied smirking to the front bench of the Liberal Party. Like Political Correctness, the ‘Humourless Left’ may be an invention of the Right. But fictions have real effects.

Increasingly, audiences are ignoring the ideological porn that passes for public debate in the Australian media. The lack of nuance the first casualty of the punditry wars is wearing particularly thin, as are the constant ad hominem potshots. The average reader who has to negotiate information as it seeps into the cracks of everyday life, frankly, couldn’t care less about this pissing competition.

American essayist Christopher Hitchens is a case in point. A former Trostkyist, Hitchens has come under personal attack in the liberal media accused among other things of abandoning the Left, being an alcoholic, and being a bad husband. Since when did calling a brilliant writer an amoral drunk become an insult?

It can be considered unremarkable, then, that the most sustained attack on Devine’s work comes not from the populist Left but from small ‘c’ conservative commentator Gerard Henderson, a journalist Adams lumps in with neo-cons like Devine. Henderson has tracked Devine for years in The Sydney Institute journal and has done a pretty thorough job of exposing a number of logical inconsistencies, factual errors and ideological about-faces in her work. (See, for instance, ‘Miranda Devine’s Short Memory,’ Sydney Institute Quarterly, Issue 7, July 1999, and ‘Miranda Devine’s (Big Brother) U-Turn,’ Sydney Institute Quarterly, Issue 15, October, 2001.)

Yet, even this type of critique, while important, has limited value. It fails to capture what makes a journalistic failure like Devine such a success as a commentator: her work is an infuriating absurdity because her anti-intellectual rhetoric which mistakes the capacity to outrage with the capacity to ‘get people thinking’ exists in a newspaper laying claim to ‘quality’ journalism. Ironically, this is also why Devine’s work must be taken seriously.

Ultimately, what the Left-Right turf war demonstrates is the growing irrelevance of this type of media and the public commentators who uncritically align themselves with ‘the Left’ or ‘the Right’.

The question, then, becomes how do you write about Miranda Devine without being defined by her? Is there a way of engaging with the shabby logic and threadbare moralising of neo-con punditry — a transparent reheating of American 1990s New Right thinking — in the crock-pot that is Australian print journalism in a genuinely meaningful way? Is there an outside to the mainstream media system or is this column being hijacked even as you read it?

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